Deleuzian Thinking

I just posted over at my other blog called “The Electrate Professor” an entry on “How Concepts Function” which talks about “Deleuzian thinking” as being focused more on what thinking does than on what thinking is.  Rather than copy/paste, I thought I would just create the links to send my vast audience of readers directly to that post… I hope this isn’t cheating.

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31 March 2009 at 8:36 pm Leave a comment

Managing Fear for Creative Thinking

A recent book I found at my local library is titled Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently.

While I haven’t had time to look deeply in to this book, I did read the dust jacket (first step in the process of “gutting a book”).  Here’s what it says:

What makes iconoclasts so astoundingly creative and successful? They overcome mental barriers that stop most of us cold. The brain has three natural roadblocks that stand in the way of  truly innovative thinking:  flawed perception, fear of failure, and the inability to persuade others.

This reminds me of a previous post in which I discuss “mind control” as a form of controlling the energy flowing through our brains.  It demonstrates another source that focuses on this same issue of “psychoenergonomics” and channeling the energy within our brains.

Aaron T. Beck, in his book Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence, writes of the evolutionary source of our brains as “fear-machines” and how counter-productive it can be in our modern lives:

Although the enemies of our prehistoric past, such as animal predators or bands of human marauders, are no longer a threat to our everyday existence, we are encumbered by the legacy from our ancestors, who were exposed to and feared these dangers. We unwittingly construct a phantom world composed of individuals who are poised to dominate, deceive, and exploit us. We are overly suspicious of actions that hint of manipulation or deception, and we may transform trivial or innocuous events or mild challenges into serious offenses. These automatic, exaggerated self-protective processes lead to unnecessary friction and pain in our contemporary lives. It probably was useful in our evolutionary past to react in an either-or fashion in discriminating friend from foe, prey from predator. It may have been adaptive to be on guard against the intrusive behavior of other members of the clan when our own survival was at stake, but we generally no longer need the margin of safety provided by these archaic mechanisms in our ordinary interactions. (33-34)

Gregoy Berns, author of Iconoclast, makes a similar point:

The human stress response, although sometimes rearing its head in the most inopportune times, is part and parcel of our evolutionary history. . . . But stress is different today. And while humans do not fend off saber-toothed tigers, we sure have our share of other stressors. The social fabric of society is far more complex than any culture that humans evolved in. And still, we carry the burden of millions of years of evolution.  (61-62)

Controlling our fear is essential if we are to release the energy of our brain from centering on the amygdala, the fear-center, and letting it flow throughout the frontal cortex, giving it the freedom to make associations across our senses and domains, juxtaposing the disparate areas of our experience to open the way to alternative solution.

Recognizing that fear can paralyze action, the iconoclast takes the automatic arousal associated with fear and uses it for something productive. The prefrontal cortex is largely responsible for this override control… (67)

Berns suggests “cognitive reappraisal” as a way of engaging the prefrontal cortex to inhibit the amygdala (i.e. replace negative reactions with positive ones):

The recent advances in neuroimaging show with increasing precision that cognitive strategies are highly effective at keeping the fear system under control, and these cognitive strategies have their origin in the prefrontal cortex. So rather than people needing to avoid the situations that cause fear or the circumstances that make them stress out, neuroscience is showing how the rational part of the brain can regain control over such toxic emotions like fear. (81)

The issue of controlling fear is complicated:  the book devotes three different chapters to the topic:  “Fear–The Inhibitor of Action”; “How Fear Distorts Perception”; “Why the Fear of Failure Makes People Risk Averse.”

I want to make one more point about this book.  The dust jacket speaks of the efficiency of the brain insofar as it minimizes energy expenditure in terms of processing recognizable perceptions:  “Did you know that when you see the same thing over and over again your brain expends less and less energy? Your mind already knows what it’s seeing, so it doesn’t make the effort to process the event again. Just putting yourself in new situations can make you see things differently and jump-start your creativity.”  Here, again, is the idea of energonomics:  managing energy flow, here in the brain:  the way to creativity in this case is to stimulate energy expenditure in the brain, to awaken the senses with new stimulation and input such that one is able to break out of conventional categories that the brain uses to simplify its task of monitoring the world for the purpose of survival.

The efficiency principle dictates that the brain will take shortcuts based on what it already knows. These shortcuts, although they save energy, lead to perception being shaped by past experience. How you categorize objects determines what you *see*. And because imagination comes from perception, these same categories hobble imagination and make it difficult to think differently. (57)

Again, conscious effort must be used to channel the energy in our brains in a different way such that it serves our purposes.

30 March 2009 at 6:22 pm Leave a comment

The Energonomics of Eating

Our Green Sanctuary Committee at the UU Church in Haverhill chose to read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals as our “book group” choice, and I’m finding it to be a seminal text of energonomics.  Pollan traces the energetic source of four different meals:  a fast-food meal, an “industrial organic” meal, a truly organic meal, and a meal that was “hunted and gathered.”  Of course, everything ultimately gets traced back to the solar energy of the sun itself–even twinkies!

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is about the three principal food chains that sustain us today:  the industrial, the organic, and the hunter-gatherer.  Different as they are, all three food chains are systems for doing more or less the same thing:  linking us, through what we eat, to the fertilility of the earth and the energy of the sun. It might be hard to see how, but even a Twinkie does this–constitutes an engagement with the natural world.  As ecology teaches, and this book tries to show, it’s all connected, even the Twinkie. (7)

It turns out that the industrial food chain links us indirectly to the sun via fossil fuels used to catalyze the production of chemical fertilizer, which means that “the basis of soil fertility shifted from a total reliance on the energy of the sun to a new reliance on fossil fuel. . . . Instead of eating exclusively from the sun, humanity now began to sip petroleum” (44-45).    Processing the corn grown with these synthetic fertilizers also binds us to Mid-Eastern oil:  “Wet milling is an energy-intensive way to make food; for every calorie of processed food it produces, another ten calories of fossil fuel are burned” (88).  The energy-dense foods now produced by this industrial food chain constitute the core of our dilemma as omnivores:

Natural selection predisposed us to the taste of sugar and fat (its texture as well as taste) because sugars and fats offer the most energy (which is what a calorie is) per bite.  Yet in nature–in whole foods–we seldom encounter these nutrients in the concentrations we now find them in in processed foods:  You won’t find a fruit with anywhere near the amount of fructose in a soda, or a piece of animal flesh with quite as much fat as a chicken nugget. (106-7)

Organically grown food isn’t necessarily better, if it relies on the industrial processes that the industrial food chain developed.  As Pollan notes,

A one-pound box of prewashed lettuce contains 80 calories of food energy. . . [whereas] growing, chilling, washing, packaging, and transporting that box of organic salad to a plate on the East Coast takes more than 4, 600 calories of fossil fuel energy, or 57 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food. (167)

Put another way, “the food industry burns nearly a fifth of all the petroleum consumed in the United States (about as much as automobiles do). Today, it takes between seven and ten calories of fossil fuel energy to deliver one calorie of food energy to an American plate” (183).

Throughout the book, as you can see, Pollan continually references energy as the forgotten factor in our daily accounting.  The implications of his book point to our need to manage energy much more efficiently if we are to negotiate the coming challenges that the planet faces in the 21st century.  The UUA‘s Study-Action Issue for 2008-12 is “Ethical Eating,” and this book definitely calls us to consider all that is behind every food choice that we make.

29 January 2009 at 2:12 am 2 comments

Reinventing the Sacred

I’m always reading so many books at once that I am reluctant to start another one…. But there are so many to be read, and they all sit around staring at me, asking “When?”  Sometimes I just can’t help myself.

One that falls into this category, Stuart Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion, looks like it might be one of the most important books on the planet, and those are always calling for my attention.  The book flap says that it “proposes a new understanding of a natural divinity based on an emerging, scientifically  based world view.”  Kauffman wants to redefine God to represent the “natural creativity in the universe.”  As a complexity theorist, Kauffman’s work on thermodynamics and life leads him to conclude that there should be a “fourth law of thermodynamics” that recognizes how life seems to oppose entropy.

The concern of this book is to make an appeal that unites disparate religions and belief systems in a common, shared understanding so that we as a species can begin to take control of our collective destiny–and the destiny of the biosphere which we are close to damaging beyond repair.  In his concluding chapter, Kauffman writes:

If these lines of discussion have merit and stand the test of scrutiny over time, we will transition to a new view of ourselves, our humanity, and this, our world that we partially cocreate.  In this view, much of what we have sought from a supernatural God is the natural behavior of the emergent creativity in the universe.  If one image can suffice, think that all that has happened for 3.8 billion years on our planet, to the best of our knowledge, is that the sun has shed light upon the Earth, and some other sources of free energy have been available, and all that lives around you has come into existence, all on its own.  I find it impossible to realize this and not be stunned with reverence. (282)

It is this last sentence that strikes a chord with me.  All the science I read about leads me to this same “stunned reverence.”  This leads me to think of the fourth principle of Unitarian Universalism:  “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”  This principle invites me to learn as much science as I can, not to ignore it as so many other denominations of Christianity do.  Kauffman offers a way of integrating the most current theories of science into a coherent religious framework, one that can serve our planet at its time of greatest need–when we need to grow up as a species and take responsibility for our actions.

3 January 2009 at 7:13 pm 1 comment

Energy and Spirituality

I just finished reading Mary Oliver’s book of poems titled Thirst.  I was prompted to write about it here after reading the epigraph, quoted from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts.  What else can I do?”  Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven.  His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

The least I would do, I thought, would be to post this quote.  Perhaps it could speak for itself!  But it’s so beautiful, I will try to explain what about these words is appealing to me.

Just as an aside, I always thought Oliver was a Unitarian Universalist, because she is so often quoted during UU services.  For example, I recited her poem “Summer Day” during my friend Reverend Tony Lorenzen‘s ordination ceremony when he became a UU minister.  But after reading Thirst, which details her discovery of faith while or after dealing with her partner’s death, I don’t think so anymore, for there is direct reference to the bread and the cup of Christian ritual.   While the deep reverence for nature still shines through these poems (“My work,” she says in the opening line of the opening poem, “is loving the world.”), she now overtly uses religious language to express the awe and gratitude that her poems have always so wonderfully expressed.  Whereas before she wrote, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is” (in “Summer Day”), she now prays directly to God in the poems themselves.  Some of the poem titles indicate this:  “Making the House Ready for the Lord,” “Coming to God: First Days,” “The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside Our Church: The Eucharist,” “Six Recognitions of the Lord,” “On Thy Wondrous Works I Will Meditate” and so on).  One poem, titled “Praying,” is instructions on how to pray:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

The power of her poetry is not at all diminished as a result of this turn toward the holy and the explicit language of reverence, and I don’t find it distracting as I might in the work of others with less skill and sensitivity.  You can see that she still maintains the beautiful simplicity and humility of her previous books.

So, anyway, back to the epigraph.  As a good number of this blogs’ entries indicate, I like to read and write about energy–the science of it, not the vague new-age mysticism that is popular these days.  But I think that poetic expressions of energetics as seen in this quote above are not far from truth understood (conceptual-)metaphorically (see entries in my category “metaphorical concepts” for more detail on conceptual metaphors).  In the quote, a very spiritual man asks what he can do beyond praying, meditating, etc–all of the common and recognizable forms of spiritual practice.  He is told to “become all flame.”

One purpose of my focus on energy studies–I’ve been calling it “energonomics” to suggest a new field of study that can unify many disciplines across the academy–is to try to better understand energy flow and to identify how we can use energy more efficiently at all levels:  from our own, personal management of energy (caloric intake, exercise regimes, emotional control) to a broader application of the concept to global concerns about climate change, deforestation, and resource management in general.  I believe that it is possible to “burn more brightly,” to become more energetic and active in changing the world for the better, to live more reverently and awe-fully and enthusiastically (enthusiasmos in Greek meaning “to be inspired as if by a God”), to sustain a high-energy fully-engaged “spirituality in action” (as Parker Palmer writes in The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring).

If the word “spirituality” turns you off, think of it in its etymological sense meaning “breath”:  in this sense, spirituality in action would translate to “breath in action,” or, simply, just being alive–but being alive in the fullest sense of the word, in the way that all life is alive on this planet.  In the words of Francois Jullien, writing in Vital Nourishment,  “‘spirit’ does not mean an entity opposed to the body but refers to an endless unfolding of one’s abilities by way of refinement” (115).  For Jullien, “The question then becomes how best to prolong one’s life, since the possibility of doing so  depends entirely on how we manage things” (121).

And how can we best prolong our lives?  By learning to “live like climax ecosystems” (Schneider & Sagan, Into the Cool p. 296); by taking care of our bodies, exercising regularly, and living optimally;  by joining with others in purposeful activity; by avoiding fear and other destructive emotions; by “feeding our breath-energy” in the words of Jullien:  “Thus it is not my ‘soul’ or even my ‘body’ that I ‘nourish’ but my ‘breath-energy.’  In the end, my internal dynamism is the most important thing to nourish” (Vital Nourishment 80).

And so it is that we can become all flame–to be filled with an energy that can light up others, to burn like a sun in the sky, to let the energy that comes to us flow through us and beyond us, unimpeded, to do the work of creating ever-more complex thoughts in the noosphere.

29 December 2008 at 2:23 pm Leave a comment

The Thermodynamics of Life

I finished reading an important book called Into the Cool:  Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life by Eric D. Schneider & Dorian Sagan.  This book introduces the emerging scientific field of “non-equilibrium thermodynamics” (NET) and, specifically, its sub-discipline they call “the thermodynamics of life” or “biothermodynamics” (i.e. the thermodynamics of biology).  One of its purposes is to correct  a neglect of the physical (that is, the “physics-al”) causes of life, neglect resulting from a primary focus on biological, genetic causes; because Darwin’s concept of natural selection cannot account for some instances of emergent complexity, the “missing link” in their view “is the energy flows studied by NET” (317).  They begin by showing how life-like processes exist even in non-living systems (what Manuel DeLanda has called “non-organic life”), and that the common denominator between such “non-organic life” and “organic life” is the energy flowing through these open systems:

NET systems organized to reduce ambient gradients and funnel their energy into our own growth, we are like nonliving NET systems that increase their complexity in areas of energy flux.  Just as the matter of life (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorous atoms)  has been found distributed throughout the universe, so the process of life (local pockets of increasing organization) is not unique.  We are connected to  other energy-flow systems that have functional organization (302).

After the cursory historical overview of classical thermodynamics and its history, Schneider and  Sagan introduce different physical phenomenon (BZ reactions, Benard cells, Taylor flow, whirlpools, etc.)–what he calls “physic’s own ‘organisms'”–before  launching into a star-to-ecosystem survey of how energy flow organizes organic life.  Evolution itself is invoked as central to this process:  “Selective advantage will go to those autocatalytic systems that best increase energy flow through their system, those that do so better than their competitors” (254).  Such behavior is so pervasive that one scientist, Stuart Kauffman, suggests that the phenomenon deserves to be called the fourth law of thermodynamics, for “the biosphere….is engaged in lawlike behavior of increasing complexity” (91).

All of this points to the growing realization that the origin and sustenance of life in the universe is not a super-natural phenomenon but completely natural.  In other words, “no God need apply”:

Although they may sometimes seem to be organized by an outside force, no ‘agent deliberating,’ as Aristotle put it over twenty centuries ago, is needed. . . . all complex structures and processes, including those of life, come naturally into being. (xvii, 6)

There were times in reading this book that I was reminded of Deleuze’s concept of the “abstract machine,” especially when the authors spoke of how living things link up with each other to exploit energy flows, as in this long passage worth quoting in full:

We, like all living beings, perpetuate ourselves and our communities but never with complete efficiency or total recycling.  We, from the cells within us to the organizations in which we as “individuals” function, are semi-independent thermodynamic systems.  Like all open complex systems, we require gradients.  But since we, like all the rest of life, are open centers of flow, not Platonic ideal forms, we link up in various ways.  Primates, birds, frogs, and aquatic mammals vocalize.  Organisms sense each other molecularly, for example, by smell. . . . Bacteria link up to propel each other, feed with and enter each other, and take in each others’ genes; this sometimes leads to new species.  Dense cell populations become multicellular organisms.  Evolution shows us a nature that routinely flouts taxonomists’ carefully drawn boundaries.  Drawing and shifting, organisms combine to use free energy in increasingly efficient and expansive ways. (146)

Ultimately, this is a book about energonomics (the concept of “managing energy flow”) insofar as it directs us–not only as individuals but also as nation-states–to emulate the wisdom of natural systems:  “To survive sustainably we need to live like climax ecosystems” (296), seeking “a steady state of minimal entropy production” (80).  Doing so will require that we learn the lessons this book has to offer:  the knowledge that life is a manifestation of the thermodynamics of energy flow, and as such should be lived with an awareness of all that this implies.  This book has many lessons and interesting details, so I will likely return to it in future posts.

30 November 2008 at 6:27 pm 3 comments

Rock Paper Scissors — Sculpture

I had a piece in the 10th Outdoor Sculpture Show at Maudsley State Park in Newburyport, MA.  The piece was titled “Rock Paper Scissors Series #1:  Stand-Off” and included the following statement in the program:

The popular two-person hand game “Rock Paper Scissors” is often used as a selection method or form of decision-making.  While the game seems harmless, it here suggests the conflict inherent in its premise and becomes an allegory for personal, political, or social violence.  The work evokes the intricacy of power relations and indicates that the oversimplified dynamics of the game do not approach the true complexity of human affairs.

Stand-Off by Richard Smyth

Rock Paper Scissors Series #1: Stand-Off by Richard Smyth

14 October 2008 at 7:11 pm 1 comment

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